Sam Goodrich | Montello, WI
I went to college in Milwaukee, so I didn’t go too far at first, just about 50 minutes south of home. Milwaukee’s one of my favorite cities. It’s very friendly, big enough where you can get some culture, good food, and arts, but small enough where you run into people you know.
When I was a senior in high school, my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. My father was much older than my mother. He was always my dad to me, but people assumed he was my grandfather all the time. He had a very interesting and cool life before I was born. He was an undercover CIA officer, so it was a very demanding life, and he traveled a lot.
When my dad was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, all of the horrible depictions of the disease I had seen in movies and TV came rushing into my thoughts. I grew up without grandparents, so I never knew someone dealing with memory loss before. Luckily, when I was at UW-Milwaukee I met with Anne Basting, a professor and pioneering researcher on connecting with older adults who have dementia. She is the founder of TimeSlips, which provides training on creative communication techniques for talking with people who have dementia. At the time I was pursuing musical theater and took some participatory theater classes. Anne showed me that what I was learning in my acting classes was directly applicable to how I could care for my dad. And that changed everything. It helped me release the importance I had on getting my dad to remember things and pivoted to the importance of being in the present moment with him. Because of that, I was able to maintain and even rebuild my relationship with my dad and find ways to connect in a beautiful way, even through his passing in 2013.
Shortly after graduation, and my father’s passing, I participated in the UW-M Student Startup Challenge through the Lubar Entrepreneurship Center. I used this as an opportunity to develop an idea I had that would combine my performance background with my desire to bring joy to people experiencing memory loss. I created a group called Stage Right that used TimeSlips techniques and created original musicals with people in senior care communities. Over the course of three visits, seniors of all abilities are able to become directors, lyricists, choreographers, playwrights, and performers in their own original musicals. We focus on imagination and creativity instead of memory. That was a lot of fun, and I learned a ton.
When I came home to visit my dad, we would often sit at the kitchen table together. There is this beautiful bay window, and we’d watch the birds together. He would never remember what my college major was or basic things like that and I would keep repeating myself and getting frustrated about it. But once I started using TimeSlips techniques, it opened up conversations that we could both participate in. I remember one conversation in particular. He talked about how important the act of service was to him throughout his life, and that was an important conversation for me at the time because it was when I was trying to decide what to do next after graduation. I loved performing and I loved the arts, but my heart was drawn to using that for service. By focusing on the idea of service and not his memory, we got to that conversation in a more organic way. He was able to give me this advice and pass down some wisdom to me that I don’t think I otherwise would’ve been able to access or frankly wouldn’t have even had the patience to listen for.
My dad really found a lot of peace in his years of experiencing memory loss, I think largely because of the care my mom provided for him and the dignity that she instilled in him in those years. He would say a thousand times a day how beautiful the sky was or take moments to notice the clouds or the scent of a flower. I don’t think he really stopped and smelled the roses in that way before. He took so much joy in just looking up at the clouds. It used to annoy me at the beginning, and then I realized stopping to do this is maybe one of the most beautiful things and that we should all do this more. My dad showed me how to take inventory of what’s around us and appreciate the beauty. I do that far more often now.
Because my dad and aunts were older, I grew up where respecting elders and honoring the value that they bring was a given. This background was a great combination to do TimeSlips work since we offer creative storytelling activities to focus on the strengths that are still there in a person with dementia.
I feel lucky that I met Anne Basting while a student at UW-M and was exposed to TimeSlips. It offered me such a positive, joyful technique to connect with my dad through his later stages of Alzheimer’s. When I say storytelling, people often think that with TimeSlips I’m trying to tap into people’s memories to tell their own story. But that is the opposite of what we do. We show an image, ask open-ended questions about the image, and then put together a full story. The questions are based in the present moment. We use words, sounds, movement, and images, which releases the pressure to remember.
After college I worked as a professional care partner for a few years, so I got to test using TimeSlips with many different people. Years ago, I was working as a caregiver with this woman in Chicago. She was a wonderful woman, but the work can be quite challenging. She was very affected by sundowning, as daylight began to fade, she would be agitated and her confusion got worse. I struggled to find ways to ease her anxiety. One day I started doing TimeSlips maybe 15 minutes before the sun went down and it was a huge transformation for her. She started referring to it as the stories and would ask me, ‘When are we going to do the stories together?’ It was an opportunity for her to focus on something positive, and it made her feel more relaxed during the part of the day that was otherwise really challenging.
I developed our Tele-Stories program in 2017, which utilizes TimeSlips techniques over the phone. When the pandemic hit and the need for remote connections increased, we knew we had something we could offer to help.
I pair artists with under-connected elders living at home and use creativity to increase feelings of connection and reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. The artists would ask what we call a ‘beautiful question’, a question with no right or wrong answer that is designed to tap into creativity. During the weekly calls, they build these connections, and then the artists created something from these conversations. Maybe a poem, a recipe book, a dance, or a song.
Tele-stories evolved into training people who do well-check calls and deliver meals to people living alone. We’re now in a national pilot with Meals on Wheels America. Through their training, we encourage them to explore the opportunity for connection and conversation instead of just ringing the bell and dropping off food. We teach them micro-moments of engagement, exploring how you can take these short phone calls or brief moments dropping off a meal, and really enrich that time without much additional effort.
I first met my wife when we were in high school. I went to Port Washington and she went to Grafton, which are neighboring towns. Because we were both in music, we knew each other briefly but didn’t become friends until college. Fast forward many years of laughter and beautiful friendship, and we got married in 2020.
My wife is an opera singer and her work takes her all over the world. Since my work is done remotely, I am able to travel with her. We’ve been all over the country and will end the year in Berlin, Germany. I feel incredibly lucky to do this, and in a way, I feel like I am honoring my father’s legacy by doing this work and seeing the world. Still, no matter how far we travel, Wisconsin will always be home.
We decided to make our home base the place that is the most special to us, her late grandparents’ house in Montello. We live on Lake Puckaway, which is much smaller than Lake Michigan, but it still fills me with peace. Every day we are home, I take time to look at the sky and appreciate the beauty that the day has given me. Just like my dad used to do.
I remember thinking in high school that I would never live in a small town again, but we found the most unexpected, beautiful community in this rural area. While it is not lost on me that some residents in the area may take issue with who I am, I choose to focus on those who celebrate me. It took me a while to become proud about who I am, but my love for my wife is my whole heart. It’s the greatest thing I get to experience in this life, so why would I hide that? Luckily, most people don’t ask me to.
I’ve always felt that we have more in common than we don’t, it’s just that we care a lot about our differences. Really, when we are open to learning about what we aren’t familiar with, we realize that what we’re afraid of, our differences, aren’t scary at all. They are what make us unique and beautiful.
This is a short explainer video to learn more about how TimeSlips works.
PBS did a segment on the work TimeSlips did with senior citizens during the pandemic. You can learn more about the Beautiful Questions and how creative engagement can work with meal delivery.